Nicaragua Canal: critical analysis and criticism

A Very Good Idea…?

The Construction of Nicaragua inter-ocean Canal was first proposed in the 18th century. In June 2013, Nicaragua's National Assembly approved a bill to grant a 50-year concession to the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND Group) to build the waterway, and several possible routes have been proposed for this waterway Canal, all making use of Lake Nicaragua. The canal would have capacity for ships of up to 250,000 tons.

In fact, commercial analysis conducted by the Nicaraguan authorities indicate that the combined impact of growth in east–west trade and in ship sizes provide a compelling argument for this incredible workshop, a canal substantially larger than even the expanded Panama Canal, because within 10–15 years, growth in global maritime trade is expected to cause delays in congestion in transit through the Panama Canal without a complementary route through the Central American isthmus. According to some surveys the volume of trade that a Nicaragua Canal could serve will have grown by 240% from today, by 2030.

The proposed routes would require deepening shallow rivers and adding a series of locks on the Rivas Isthmus.

HKND Group has hired Environmental Resources Management, one of the world’s leading sustainability consultancies, to independently assess the environmental and social impact of various routes under consideration, which would require deepening shallow rivers and adding a series of enormous locks on the Rivus Isthmus.

All proposed routes are of approximately 280 km, and supposedly reduce the transit time from New York to California by one day and 800 km. The new canal would also considerably reduce transit costs from Europe to China and Japan.

According to the estimates, the construction of the Nicaragua canal alone would more than double Nicaragua's GDP, and other investments should be added as a result of the canal's construction (resorts, tourist facilities, pipelines, railways, and so on).

The government suggests that eventually the canal would enable Nicaragua to become one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America in per capita terms. Supporters believe if a Nicaraguan canal were built, it would bring an economic effervescence never seen before in Central America and everyone would benefit from it, as the canal and other associated projects would be financed by investors throughout the world and would generate jobs not only for Nicaragua but for other Central American countries.

Or the Worst ever scheme?

But as word of the plans spreads, experts and scientists are asking questions and finding potentially serious flaws in the plan to dig a great canal across Nicaragua.

Scientists warn that the massive undertaking could become an environmental disaster not only for Nicaragua, but for Central America, with at least dubious financial benefits.

So far no serious assessment of the environmental impacts of the project has been made. In fact, HKND Group has contracted a global consulting firm, Environmental Resources Management, to conduct an environmental review and to proceed with great care within international standards of environmental responsibility.

But scientists aren’t content to take the word of a Chinese group. Scientists argue that the proposed canal would pass through or near nature reserves and areas inhabited by indigenous groups.

We remind you that the proposed routes pass through Lake Nicaragua, which is Central America’s largest lake and is a major source of drinking water and irrigation. This lake is also home to rare freshwater sharks and other fish of commercial and scientific value. The forest around it is home to howler monkeys, jaguars, tapirs, and countless tropical birds.

All the area is a natural laboratory for evolutionary biology. Just as Darwin’s finches evolved into different species as they adapted to the unique environment of individual islands, so it goes with fish as they’ve colonized the region’s network of crater lakes.

Exactly what ill effects would result from the canal is not clear, partly because the plan itself is not clear. But here are a few scenarios: Scientists worry primarily about the dredging necessary to accommodate massive container ships. Indeed, the proposed canal is 90 feet deep; the Lake Nicaragua averages just 50 feet. Thus the digging would create a huge sediment issue that would be bad for water quality in the lake and the wetlands around it.

Another water-related concerns raise from the fact that it might be necessary to dam the San Juan River, the main route for water flowing out of the lake, to keep the water levels high enough for the canal’s locks to work properly. A dam of such a magnitude would change the hydrology of many lakes and rivers, and some may dry up.

A new conduit between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea would create the potential for an enormous invasive species problem. That “alien invasion” could include venomous Pacific sea snakes invading the Caribbean and a disruption of Caribbean fisheries from an influx of competing species, disease and predators. (That hasn’t happened in Panama because the canal route there is entirely freshwater, presenting a barrier for marine life. In Nicaragua, however, the topography that separates the Pacific and Caribbean is lower permitting a canal route that’s closer to sea level and potentially filled with saltwater for more of its length).

Experts point out another possible impact on marine life: The new Nicaraguan canal could create a major shipping route in close proximity to Seaflower Marine Protected Area a UNESCO World Heritage site off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, which encompasses one of the largest coral reefs in the world and is home to scores of endangered marine species. An oil leak or other accident in the region could be disastrous.

Serious environmentalists understand the need to balance economic and environmental factors. While they’d rather see Nicaragua follow the lead of Costa Rica and develop an ecotourism economy instead of the canal, they realize there’s a touch of hypocrisy in outsiders from industrialized countries preaching environmental purity. But the fact is that the economic benefits aren’t guaranteed!

There’s no geographic advantage to a canal in Nicaragua. The few hundred miles shaved off major shipping routes between North America and Asia would be balanced out by longer transit times through a canal that’s more than three times as long as its competitor in Panama.

Proponents of the Nicaragua canal have pointed out that even the canal in Panama won’t accommodate the latest generation of mega container ships, the so-called Triple E class, which can carry up to a third more cargo. This is true, but few ports in the United States, Caribbean islands, or Latin America are equipped to handle these behemoths. Some ports may be overhauled to accommodate these massive ships by the time a canal could be built.

Besides, serious seismic risks exist in the area. These risks are not negligible, and they probably represent the worst-case scenario. Less dramatic but higher probability risks, like the slow degradation of the environment, or (very likely) the prospect of work getting underway on the canal only to be abandoned when the going gets tough or the money runs out.

Conclusion is obvious: at this point in time, from a commercial standpoint, the project does not make sense. But all the worries may have been overblown for political purposes:

The proposed canal is a nice opportunity for China and Russia, as they continue to take strategic initiatives that put the United States on the defensive. That’s why the these two powers team up with Sandinistas in Nicaragua to help construct a trans-oceanic canal in Nicaragua that would give Beijing and Moscow a great foothold in traditional Washington’s area of influence.

The Russian Federation considers itself to be a global power that is active everywhere and that, whatever Russia’s leadership might publicly claim, is challenging the United States anywhere that it can.
Russia has already announced its plans to establish a base in Nicaragua besides using existing facilities for refueling for aircraft and port calls for Russian warships (in addition to Nicaragua, Moscow also is looking to establish bases in Cuba and Venezuela).

The establishment of permanent Russian military bases in the Western Hemisphere are seen as a challenge by Washington. Like a repeat of events leading up to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Moscow could stage offensive weapons in Nicaragua, placing a formidable challenge to U.S. homeland defenses from potential missile threats.

Russians already have set up a satellite navigation monitoring system in Nicaragua. This devices are supposed to set up a network of land-based control stations in Nicaragua to monitor and augment the accuracy of navigation satellites in Earth orbit. However, experts believe the Nicaraguan facility is to become a substitute for the electronic tracking center at Lourdes, Cuba which Moscow gave up a decade ago (and the canal concession allows for the establishment of a military base).

It seems that China would do the construction while Russia would provide security and take on other yet undefined roles in connection with the canal. The Nicaraguan government would benefit from the military presence of the Russian and Chinese forces, and the people of Nicaragua would carry the weight of those dangerous decisions.

Indeed, we must bear in mind that the planned Nicaragua Canal project doesn’t have a declaration of neutrality. In the event of a conflict, the maritime route would not remain neutral. Therefore, granting Russia the security concession could be a cover for a military base, which, in turn, would afford excellent cover for the introduction of a host of covert agents and programs and for laundering criminally obtained profits. In simple words, it provides a platform for massive corruption within the project as well as the government, potentially with both Russian and Chinese money. This combination of arms sales, military installations and large-scale economic, infrastructural and energy projects is a hallmark of Russian policy, and they are well-tested instruments by which Moscow seeks to permanently leverage its friendly states, such as Nicaragua, into partners or, more bluntly, clients.

In addition, potentially large deposits of natural gas in the Caribbean Sea near Nicaragua have peaked Russian interest. Thus the underlying concern is that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is close to the Russians, could turn Nicaragua into a Russian base of operations.

These plans combined with Russia’s unremitting efforts to wage “asymmetric war” against the United States globally and in its neighborhood, should at least disturb the dogmatic slumbers of those in Washington who have hitherto neglected to ponder Moscow’s goals in Nicaragua and across Latin America.

canal of nicaragua and canal of panama

Map of the both canals: the existing in Panama and the proposed Grand Canal of Nicaragua

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